When Lucian Bute left the cozy confines of Montreal’s Bell Centre and traveled to Nottingham to defend his IBF super middleweight title against Carl Froch, it figured to be—at least on paper—a competitive fight.
Bute (30-1, 24 KO) came into his fight against Froch (29-2, 21 KO) as both a respected and maligned champion. Many lauded Bute’s undeniable boxing skills and his credentials as champion who had made nine defenses of his world title, including several via clinical stoppage.
However, as is the case with most prominent fighters, opinions on Bute were divided. Detractors pointed to the fact that all of Bute’s title defenses had come in his adopted hometown of Montreal, nearby Quebec City or his native Romania against less than sterling opposition. And there was also the issue of the “long count” he benefited from during his first fight against Librado Andrade.
Depending on which camp one falls into, Bute’s devastating TKO loss to Froch was either shocking or vindicating.
Bute figured to have an advantage in speed and boxing ability against Froch, but this supposed edge quickly proved irrelevant, as Froch walked Bute down and unloaded with a variety of powerful combinations that hurt Bute with alarming ease. Froch didn’t simply stop Bute; he destroyed him.
The extent and ease of the drubbing was such that the rematch clause—which obligates Froch to travel to Canada for the second installment—seemed like nothing but a perfunctory contractual agreement in the immediate aftermath. Surely Bute wouldn’t willingly agree to face Froch again.
But Bute did—with the exception that both he and Froch would take interim bouts. While Froch will defend the IBF title he wrested from Bute on November 17 against Yusaf Mack, Bute will step into the ring this Saturday against upset-minded Denis Grachev.
Grachev (12-0-1, 8 KO) was last seen scoring a surprise stoppage victory over then-undefeated light heavyweight prospect Ismayl Sillakh. In fact, Bute-Grachev will be contested at light heavyweight, and while he is somewhat limited in terms of pure boxing ability, Grachev is certainly a live underdog.
It is no brave claim to suggest that Bute will beat Grachev, or even that he will win by knockout. Still, the importance of this fight for Bute cannot be overstated. With that, let’s find out how and why Bute will rise to the occasion and take his first step towards redemption.
The Bell Centre is home to the Habs and Lucian Bute.
It is rare to see a long-reigning champion opt to defend his titles in his opponent’s hometown. What was even more unusual about Lucian Bute’s decision to travel to Nottingham is that he has a rabid Montreal fanbase that routinely packs the Bell Centre to the tune of 15,000 people (or more).
Whether one believes in Bute’s championship resume is one thing, but what cannot be denied is that his choice to meet Froch on his home turf was a brave one. Bute clearly was aware of his detractors who labeled him a protected champion, and it is evident that pride has some bearing on how Bute views himself as a fighter.
That said, no boxer will be happier to feel the warm embrace of his home crowd than Bute when he returns to Montreal to fight Denis Grachev. Bute was already attracting over 10,000 fans when he was contending for a super middleweight title, so it is essentially assured that the Bell Centre will be packed as if Bute was defending a world title.
The city of Montreal has wholeheartedly embraced Bute, and the crowd there is a loyal and raucous one. (I can speak concretely to this; it’s my hometown.) Coming off of his first career defeat—via devastating stoppage, no less—Bute will be energized by the local support. This should lead to an exciting and dominant performance.
Bute also has vast experience when it comes to performing in front of a packed Bell Centre. Of Bute’s 11 career title fights, seven have been fought in Montreal. Though another loss would be debilitating for Bute, crowd support will mitigate any sense of extra pressure.
Criticizing Lucian Bute for fighting underwhelming opposition during his title reign is somewhat valid. While Bute did score respectable victories over Librado Andrade, Brian Magee and Glen Johnson, his championship resume lacks a genuinely elite name.
Before jumping on the bandwagon of blaming Bute for fighting soft touches, one should recall that Bute wasn’t invited to participate in Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic despite being one of the best super middleweights in the world. So, even though Froch bludgeoned him, Bute did technically fight the best available post-Super Six opponent as soon as possible.
Even if Bute lost when he finally stepped up to face an elite fighter, he has still operated at a vastly superior level to Denis Grachev.
Grachev is undefeated in only 13 professional fights, and in 2009, he had to settle for a majority draw against Ernesto Castaneda, a fighter currently boasting an 11-8-2 record. Still, Grachev has improved since that 2009 bout, and he doesn’t lack fighting experience. Grachev has an MMA and elite-level kickboxing background.
Grachev does hold victories over two fighters—Azea Augustama and Vladine Biosse—who were undefeated before Grachev bested them. Still, the only recognizable name on Grachev’s ledger is Ismayl Sillakh (17-1, 14 KO), a heavily hyped light heavyweight prospect who, while talented, had only scored somewhat meaningful victories over Daniel Judah and Yordanis Despaigne.
Bute, a veteran of 31 bouts, is used to fighting in front of massive crowds with a world title at stake. Though Grachev was undoubtedly the “opponent” against Sillakh, he has never faced someone with Bute’s class in such a hostile environment.
The other edge Bute holds is that he is accustomed to scoring stoppages in significant fights. In 11 title fights, Bute has eight wins inside the distance, and six of those knockouts have come in front of his fans at the Bell Centre.
Now that he has faced genuine adversity, Bute, as long as he is psychologically sound, might have ironically added the last wrinkle of experience needed to become a truly complete fighter. Expect Bute to tap into his reservoir of boxing savoir-faire and push Grachev into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations.
Denis Grachev was losing virtually every round of his fight against Ismayl Sillakh before rallying to score an eighth-round stoppage. That said, one should not merely dismiss Grachev’s victory as a bit of blind, right-handed luck; he is a tough, persistent fighter who packs a solid punch.
While Grachev’s relentlessness and power punching was eventually enough to catch and stop Sillakh, it would be surprising if he did the same to Bute. Against Sillakh, Grachev benefited from his opponent’s excessive dancing in retreat, as well as Sillakh’s tendency to drop his left hand and pull straight back.
These are mistakes that Bute will likely avoid when he faces Grachev.
There are also flaws in Grachev’s craft that Bute will be able to exploit. For one, Grachev tends lean forward as he advances and throws hooks, leaving his head exposed as his arms drop to his side. In general, Grachev has a tendency to expose his head by lowering his fists to his chest level, leaving his head and stomach open to straight shots and counters.
Grachev can also be made to chase, and he often resorts to lunging forward as he throws lead left hooks. While he does have decent leverage and grounding, precise feints and lateral movement are likely to knock him off-balance.
Sillakh knocked Grachev down with a right hand, and this had much to do with Grachev dropping his left after he jabbed or hooked. Before getting stopped, Sillakh also had some success throwing uppercuts that Grachev leaned into, though he didn’t firmly commit to this punch.
If Grachev connects, he can land with power, though his shots often come in wide arcs without an abundance of snap. This lack of elite speed is something Bute can exploit. Also, as Grachev lunges forward and loads up on his shots, there seems to be open angles where he can be struck to the body.
When watching Denis Grachev’s fight against Ismayl Sillakh, obvious flaws with regards to Grachev throwing wide hooks, lunging as he punches and dropping his hands as he bends forward are apparent. Luckily for Lucian Bute, these deficiencies play into several of his strengths.
One mistake that Sillakh made when fighting Grachev was that he often pulled straight back and only moved laterally when he was circling the ring and out of punching range. Bute, who has excellent footwork, should be able to use subtle side steps after slipping Grachev’s wide hooks to create punching angles and force Grachev off-balance.
The last thing Bute wants to do is offer Grachev a central, stationary target. Because Bute’s footwork is usually so fluid, he should be able to play matador to Grachev’s bull, using movement not only to create punching angles, but also as a means to turn Grachev and press forward. Grachev barely spent a second on his back foot against Sillakh; Bute will look to change this.
Bute possesses a lethal left uppercut from his southpaw stance, and he should have an abundance of opportunities to land the punch when Grachev bends forward. If Bute can get his lead foot outside of Grachev’s, he should be able to land his left uppercut with a central trajectory to Grachev’s head and stomach.
Working Grachev’s body will also be crucial for Bute, and he should be able to score with the aforementioned uppercut and his right hook, especially if he can capitalize on Grachev’s wild left hooks, which often miss. Bute has used his left uppercut to the body to score a one-punch knockout of Librado Andrade, and the blow has been a weapon throughout his career. Expect this shot to be the difference-maker.
If Bute is going to score a knockout, it will probably occur after systematically breaking Grachev down. Bute’s left uppercut will likely be the deciding punch, and don’t be surprised if Grachev leans directly into the knockout blow.
If Lucian Bute loses to Denis Grachev, it will be nearly impossible to justify the rematch against Carl Froch. Such is the harsh reality of the pressure a fighter on the comeback trail faces, especially one who used to operate at the championship level.
By opting to face a supposedly lesser fighter in Grachev, Bute has opened himself up to the possibility of a devastating loss that could do irreparable damage to his career. While losing to Grachev—or to Froch for a second time—effectively ends the possibility of Bute ever securing a fight against the likes of Andre Ward, an uneven performance could be nearly as damaging to Bute’s reputation and self-confidence.
If Bute plods his way to a lackluster decision over Grachev, Froch will undoubtedly be licking his chops (even more than he was heading into his first encounter against Bute). This would also certainly lead to fans and pundits questioning the validity of Froch-Bute II, especially if Froch scores a dominant win over Yusaf Mack.
Only scoring a knockout will restore a genuine measure of public confidence in Bute. A lopsided decision could prove adequate, but it wouldn’t persuade the broader boxing public that Bute could reverse his result against Froch.
Sure, Montrealers, Romanians and those who already count themselves as Bute fans will be satisfied with a win, but Froch-Bute II will lack a sense of buzz and intrigue if Bute doesn’t inspire widespread assurance with his performance against Grachev.
Only an impressive knockout of Grachev can plant the seed that maybe, just maybe, Bute does have what it takes to beat Froch, or at least give him a competitive fight. There is too much on the line against Grachev for Bute not to seize the moment.